In the Diet Detective column Charles Stuart Platkin writes about the importance of maintaining good posture.

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Want to look slimmer without doing any “real” work? How about getting rid of back and neck pain? It all starts with one simple thing: posture. We talked with a few posture experts, and here’s what they had to say:

Why is good posture so important?

Nothing ages you faster than a stooped posture. A strong, straight spine portrays youth and vigor, says Janice Novak, author of “Posture, Get It Straight!´( Slumping decreases your chest measurement, narrows your shoulders and can decrease your height by up to 2 inches.

And finally, posture is the single most important factor in the health of your back and joints. According to the National Institutes of Health, poor posture and body mechanics are the No. 1 cause of back and neck pain.

What are the main culprits responsible for our terrible posture?

As we age and work in sedentary jobs, there is a tendency for our heads to go forward, our shoulders to round and our bodies to slump from performing tasks in the same poor postures every day, says Marilyn Moffat, a professor at New York University and author of “Age-Defying Fitness” (Peachtree, 2006).

Basically, we sit too much. If we’re not sitting in front of the computer, we’re sitting in front of the TV. “Sitting for a long time is a major cause of back discomfort: It puts continuous pressure on the muscles and disks of the lower back. Sitting puts 40 percent more pressure on the lower back disks than standing does,” says Novak.

How should you sit?

“You want to maintain the natural curves of your spine. Your head should be centered over your shoulders, not dropped forward. The upper back should not be curving forward. The front of the rib cage should be lifted slightly. Sit squarely on your bottom (walk your bottom to the back of your chair). This helps maintain natural spinal curves and gets your pelvis in a neutral position,” says Novak.

What effect does posture have on back, neck and joint pain?

“When the spine is properly aligned, the muscle groups that support it are in balance and the body moves with ease and comfort. The muscles in the front and back of your body work together harmoniously. Poor posture causes some muscles to overwork while others just get weaker and weaker, setting up a vicious cycle,” says Novak.

How do you know if your poor posture is contributing to your pain? “If your head hangs forward of your shoulders, the spinal curve in your neck is out of alignment. This means that the muscles in the sides and back of your neck have to work incredibly hard all day long to hold your head up,” explains Novak. And the human head weighs a lot — 8-10 pounds. “Also, the neck joints are no longer fitting together the way they are meant to so that even common, daily activities cause irritation and a wearing away of the joint linings, which is the beginning of arthritis,” she adds.

How do you know if you have bad posture?

Dr. Moffat suggests this quick test: “Stand with your entire back against the wall. Try to place your hand, with fingers straight and in a horizontal position, in the small of your neck. How many fit? The fewer fingers that fit in that space, the better your posture is. If you can fit more than three fingers, you have poor forward head posture.”

Novak recommends enlisting the help of a friend to see if your spine and joints align. From a side view:

– Your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle are in a straight line.

– Your head is directly on top of your shoulders.

– Your upper back is fairly straight.

– Your shoulder blades are lying flat against your back.

– Your shoulders are straight and relaxed.

– Your pelvis is in a neutral position, belly is not hanging out.

– Your knees are unlocked.

What can we do to improve our posture?

Dr. Paul D’Arezzo, author of “Posture Alignment, The Missing Link in Health and Fitness” (Marcellina Mountain Press, 2003) suggests becoming more aware. “Look at people’s posture, the way they sit, stand, walk and move. While waiting in a grocery line or for an elevator, take the opportunity to stand in an upright, evenly-balanced position without leaning or supporting yourself. Your weight should be felt evenly on both feet. Pull your belly in slightly and your shoulders up, back and then down to position them correctly. While sitting, make it a point every hour to purposely sit upright for at least a few minutes. When you get up from sitting, don’t push off with your hands on your legs or on the chair. Let your legs do the work.”

Additionally, he recommends core work. “Core work addresses deeper, often smaller stabilizing muscles in our pelvis, abdomen and back, all of which are intimately associated with proper posture.”

In her book, Novak offers a “One Minute To Better Posture” technique that helps people stand straighter instantly:

– Stand with feet hip-width apart. Your knees should be soft, not locked.

– Pull in your abdominal muscles as if you’re zipping up a tight pair of pants.

– Lift the front of your rib cage up as if there were a string connected from your breastbone to the ceiling, pulling you up.

– Gently, pull shoulder blades back, toward your spine, and then gently press them down, as if you wanted to tuck them into your back pockets.

– Hold the position for a few moments, trying to relax into it, breathing normally. Then relax and go through the steps again.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, founder of Copyright 2008-2009 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter and iTunes podcast at